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Tibetan Opera

An Introduction to Tibetan Opera

Tibetan Opera (Ace Lhamo, in Tibetan, or literally "Sister Goddess", in English, though the word lhamo actually means "fairy", a reference to the beautiful girls who performed the ritual, 14th century dances that are considered the precursor to Tibetan Opera), is an ancient art form in Tibet that boasts a history of over 600 years, making Tibetan Opera at least 400 years older than Peking Opera, China’s national and therefore "yardstick" theatre form.

But Tibetan Opera is more than just an operatic form of theatre with a rather ancient history, comparatively speaking; it is recognized as an integral part of the very cultural identity of the Tibetan people, since it has roots that go back to Tibet's pre-Buddhist era, Bon religion, which in turn incorporates elements of Tibet's pre-B?n era, shamanistic, animist-oriented religion (note that animism is the belief that all thing, inanimate as well as animate, possess a spirit), which of course means that Tibetan Opera has roots that go back to the very beginnings of Tibetan culture.

Though a 14th century Tibetan monk is credited with having initiated a performance that is considered to be the direct precursor to Tibetan Opera, as will be seen in the next section, an older staging of pantomimic dances that incorporated elements of Bon rituals associated with deity worship, as well as elements of traditional Tibetan folk dances, all stitched together into ingenious plays compiled for the occasion by the Indian-Buddhist monk, Padmasambhava (see immediately below) – which event could arguably be claimed as the first operatic performance in Tibet's history – was staged at the 8th century inauguration ceremony of Trisong Detsen, the new Zanpu, or King of Tibet, who ruled from CE 755-ca.800.

Trisong Detsen was the son of the Tang court princess and foster daughter of Emperor Zhongzong, Princess Jincheng (CE ca.694-739), herself a devout follower of Buddhism who had been married into the Tibetan court (Princess Jincheng became the wife of Chidaizhudan, the then King of Tibet) as a friendship gesture between the two countries. Princess Jincheng persuaded her son to make Buddhism the official religion of Tibet under the guidance of the aforementioned Indian monk, Padmasambhava ("The Lotus Born", better known as Lopon Rinpoche, or simply Padum, in Tibet), whom King Trisong Detsen had duly invited to Tibet in order to spread the knowledge and practice of Buddhism throughout the kingdom.

The Tibetans cherish their unique opera, which has been called a "living fossil of traditional Tibetan culture" and which the Tibetan people have done their utmost to keep alive by renewing it, making it as contemporary as possible while remaining as true to its origins as feasible, even though Tibetan Opera came very close to disappearing not so very long ago amidst the social upheaval that has characterized Tibetan culture the past half-century.  

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